This year, I celebrated Africa Day by sending WhatsApp messages to my friends in Senegal and in South Africa - I felt lonely being so far away. As I prepared for bed, I noticed a photo of myself where I wore a traditional gold, red, and black ankara outfit - the one my friend, Ibou, made for me while I was in Senegal. The picture made me think about what it meant to be a White man born and raised in Africa.
I have always been simultaneously a guest and truly at home on the African continent. I was born in Johannesburg’s bustle. I was raised in the dust and the rain of Maun, Botswana, and the cool mountain mist of Mutare, Zimbabwe. I was nurtured from my earliest days not only by kind and compassionate African hands, but by African words, African songs, African foods, and African ideas. I moved around too much to belong to one country, but I have found homes, places, and communities to belong to throughout the continent.
I‘ve always considered myself an African, even when I was young and decidedly an outsider both in Africa and in America. No matter where I was, I would seek out Africans to connect with. Even now, I continue building my career toward Africa and spend my free time reading African books, listening to African music, and cooking African meals. Africa is the land of my heart and I will always lean toward her.
But I can’t pretend to have inherited Africa - my parents were temporary migrants. They love the land and the people, but they aren’t of African descent. Thus, the history, the heritage of generations, isn’t mine. Not the pride that it instills, nor the compounded trauma it also entails. Nobody in my bloodline was in Africa during the time of European colonies, but if they had been, they would’ve been invaders more than immigrants, whether they would’ve known it or not. And the enormous wealth of pre-colonial African history is mine only in the books I read and stories I hear. It’s not in my blood. And further still, I have never been physically trapped by the hazards that so many Africans must confront. I’ve never been in Africa without a little blue passport that affords me some degree of insurance, an eject button that can pull me out if things become too uncertain. Even when I have chosen to stay in Africa through hard times, my passport has always meant there’s less on the line for me.
Africa’s success or failure only matters to me because I choose to respond to the part of my soul that cries out every morning and night for the Senegal River and the Chilojo Cliffs. But no one in my family will go hungry based on the outcome of events that take place in Africa. When I have been made to leave the continent (so many times), I have left land and people that mean a great deal to me still, but I haven’t left the land of my ancestors, the heritage of my DNA. And now, I have lived more than half of my life outside of Africa. When I return to South Africa or Botswana or Zimbabwe or Senegal, no matter how comfortable and at home I feel, I will be foreign, and I will have a time limit on my stay. It is something I must remain cognizant of in my interactions. To do any less would be to take for granted the space I take up in Africa.
Africa gifted me a name and a song, a meal and a place to lay my head, an understanding ear and a wise tongue, a helping hand, a brave heart, and a sharp mind. Africa made me who I am in so many ways. One thing I’ve come to internalize, above so much else, is that space and time afforded to me in Africa is just that - a gift that although I may not deserve, I must try to make myself worthy of receiving.
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